Guessing Is Not a Viable Strategy

Picture this. A consultant comes into your organization, and he shows up with the solution to all your problems. He helps organizations just like yours, and he knows exactly what you need. So listen up and implement. His solution is clearly the best, and if you think otherwise, you’re mistaken. He’s the expert, and he knows best.

How many of you have already sighed or rolled your eyes?

I appreciate this hypothetical person’s enthusiasm and his confidence, but it feels misplaced. After all, there are no silver bullets, and no single solution solves all problems. Then again, guessing isn’t a viable strategy either. We shouldn’t simply throw things at a wall and pray for the best.

Failure well managed can be a catalyst for transformation and achievement.

Amy Edmondson

So what do we do? Experiment. Experiments focus in on a narrow slice, identify potential solutions, and then test a few in a time-bound and feedback-driven way. As a leadership coach, it’s typically how I help clients identify what they’d like to work on in between sessions, and as a team coach, I always help teams find one experiment to run during their next iteration. And I suppose experiments are guesses. But they’re strategic, thoughtful, and when you get everyone involved in identifying the experiment, they’re a win. The problem though?

No one ever talks about what makes for a good experiment.

Today that changed. Here are six litmus tests I’ve created that I think all good experiments should pass:

  • It can begin ideally immediately. Minimally, two days from now. This way, we don’t try to craft the perfect experiment or wait for the ideal conditions.
  • It’s purposefully small. We’re not trying to solve world hunger. Instead, we’re trying to feed a hungry person a sandwich.
  • It requires action and not simply thought. After all, theorycrafting only gets us so far so take those thoughts and turn them into something observable.
  • We’ve written down and agreed to the hypothesis we’re trying to prove. Or maybe the 1% we’re trying to improve. This comes in handy later with the final litmus test.
  • For accountability, we know what it looks like when we’re honoring the experiment and when we’re not. In this way, we can keep ourselves honest.
  • It has an end. And at that end, we reflect back on what we’ve learned, what surprised us, what we should or shouldn’t codify, and what experiment gets us another 1% closer to where we wish to be.


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